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Iran contrary

Foreign Policy

Thursday 21 ربيع الثاني 1430, by Stephen M. Walt

All the versions of this article:

  • English

Here’s what our Secretary of State had to say about a certain prominent "rogue state":

"[Tehran’s] present state of mind is a combination of aggressive arrogance and obsessions of its own making. There are doubtless many reasons, cultural, historical, political, for this state of mind. . . . I would be inclined, however, to advance the view that a country whose behavior is as violent, irascible, unyielding, and hostile as that of . . . [Iran] is led by leaders whose view of the world and of life itself is unreal."

Pretty scary, huh? No wonder some people think extreme measures are needed to prevent those mad mullahs from getting a nuclear capability, because people with such an "unreal view" could not be deterred from using them, either against Israel or against us.

But wait—I misled you. Hillary Clinton never said that, it was Secretary of State Dean Rusk in 1966. Rusk wasn’t talking about Iran, of course; he was talking about Communist China (I just switched the names).

One can understand why Rusk described China in this way: Mao Zedong’s decisions during the "Great Leap Forward" killed millions of Chinese citizens; the leaders of the PRC were outspoken advocates of world revolution at the time, and Mao himself made some truly alarming statements about the acceptability of nuclear war in the years before China acquired its own bomb. On the whole, however, China’s military and nuclear weapons policy was fairly restrained (indeed, more so than ours). And six years later, Nixon was on his way to Bejing and the U.S. and China were on their way to becoming tacit allies.

In fact, there is well-established tendency for Americans to view potential nuclear foes as irrational fanatics who cannot be deterred. In 1950, NSC-68 maintained that Soviet acquisition of a nuclear capability would encourage them to run greater risks. In the 1970s, a rather hysterical cottage industry later emerged claiming that Soviet leaders genuinely believed they could "fight and win" a nuclear war and thus might not be deterrable. Both Soviet and American leaders had similar worries about Mao, and both countries considered taking preventive action against China’s nuclear forces at different moments during the 1960s.

Today, advocates of preventive war against Iran offer a similar set of claims, suggesting that Iran’s leaders are irrational religious extremists who would happily embrace martyrdom and take millions of fellow humans with them. The only problem with this argument is that there is no convincing evidence to support it. Even the offensive anti-Israel rhetoric offered up by certain Iranian leaders doesn’t suggest a desire to launch a suicidal nuclear war against Israel’s citizens (a war that would also kill millions of Palestinians and destroy Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem). There are plenty of good reasons to try to convince Iran not to go all the way to a nuclear weapons capability, but Iran’s alleged "irrationality" isn’t one of them.

So what do we do? Writing last week in The Nation, Robert Dreyfuss reported that Iran special envoy Dennis Ross wanted to put U.S.-Iranian engagement on a tight leash and a short timeline, an approach that makes genuine diplomatic progress less likely. If diplomacy doesn’t work, of course, then voices calling for the use of force will grow louder.

I don’t know if that’s what Ross is now recommending (thought it’s consistent with some of his past views), but John Tirman of MIT has just provided a different way to think about fixing the troubled U.S.-Iranian relationship that deserves a wide airing. Instead of a hyper-cautious, incremental, carrots-and-sticks approach to Tehran, Tirman calls for an active effort to transform the relationship, much as Nixon transformed relations with China and Reagan and Gorbachev transformed U.S.-Soviet relations. (Another historical analogy might be Anwar Sadat’s 1977 trip to Jerusalem.) Although these precedents are somewhat different from the situation the United States now faces with Iran, Tirman makes a strong case against incrementalism and for a bolder strategy. Money quote:

"Transforming the relationship means taking very significant actions to alter the fundamental dynamics that have so long impeded progress or caused setbacks. Naturally, one would like to see such actions coming from both sides, and eventually this must be so. But initially, in the coming year, the new approach can be adopted by the United States and put into practice. The risks of doing so are very low-Iran cannot hurt the United States in any significant way. The benefits, should Iran join us on this path, would be enormous: enhanced security for the region, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel; a new partner for the United States in a crucial part of the world; trade expansion; and an improvement more indirectly in American-Muslim relations worldwide."

In short, think of Iran as a country whose leadership is at least as rational as America’s, that has its own interests and historical sensitivities (just as the United States does), and that has some common interests with Washington as well as some important areas where interests conflict. And for goodness’ sake, don’t forget that the United States is a global superpower, and have the confidence to believe that it can offer bold proposals for changing the relationship without being taken to the cleaners, and without putting itself or its allies at risk.

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